Mike Smith was out of jail for 10 days when he blacked out while drinking and was arrested alongside a busy street in Key West.

When he sobered up, he was back in jail. By his own admission, he was not surprised to be there. The blacking out had happened before.

"I’m done," Smith told himself. "If I don’t stop, I’m gonna spend the rest of my life in prison."


He has no recollection of being arrested, half a block off Duval Street.

This time, Smith knew he would have to do a small stint before he could get a spot in a substance abuse program.

In the interim, he signed up to be a trustee at the jail, working on a farm that for the last two decades has become a corner of Monroe County where abandoned, abused, confiscated, and donated animals from around the country have found refuge behind razor wire.

It's a place where a miniature horse named Bam Bam grazes his days away on a pasture as men in orange jumpsuits muck stalls and make sure water dishes are brimming.


Snowflake the alpaca is shown here as inmate Michael Smith visits with Arabella at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Animal Farm. All photos by Kim Raff, used with permission.

Inmate Orlando Gonzalez shows Boots the alligator to visitors during an open house day.

Curator Jeanne Selander holds Mo the sloth, the most well known animal at the farm.

Smith was amazed on his first day at the farm at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Stock Island Detention Center.

"I figured it’d be just a couple of pigs, maybe," he said. "I didn’t know there was gonna be snakes and lizards and alligators and everything else."

21 years ago, out on the busy road that runs alongside the jail, a flock of ducks was losing its battle with traffic. In response to their dwindling numbers, a fence was erected, a pond put in, and a few picnic tables where the guards took breaks. But the sanctuary didn’t stay small for long. And as word spread through the "coconut telegraph" — the unofficial gossip tree that spans the Florida Keys — the jail’s animal population began to increase and diversify. There was a lot of need, and it turned out the jail was beginning to look like the place to fill it.

Attention-hound Misty, a Moluccan cockatoo, repeatedly says “I love you” to visitors.

Gonzalez crouches down with Fat Albert, who escaped from his owner's home and was found roaming a hotel parking lot before being brought to the farm.

Gonzalez and Smith clean out animal pens.

Curator Jeanne Selander — or Farmer Jeanne as she’s known — runs the farm with the trustees.

For the inmates, it’s a way to make daily escapes from the jail in order to feed and clean the animals and build their trust. Selander came to the farm almost 10 years ago with a background in marine biology. She was working for the Key West Aquarium with veterinarian Dr. Doug Mader when the job opened up, and he encouraged her to apply. She had a love for animals, but she’d never stepped foot in a jail and was apprehensive about working alongside inmates.

Selander and Mo visit with a crowd during an open house at the farm.

After landing the job, Selander, still unsure, visited the site with Mader as he did his rounds. "I thought, 'What a neat little place' and how much more could be done with it. After I saw how the [previous] farmer interacted with the inmates and that it was a safe environment, I thought, 'Yeah, I could do this.'"

On Selander’s first day, 25 animals were roaming around. Most of them were farm animals, and most were of the petting-zoo variety.

Gonzalez shows Boots to visitors during an open house.

Bam Bam grazes in an enclosure. He is blind in one eye and was abandoned on the side of a canal with five other horses in Homestead, Florida.


Smith cradles Thumper, a flemish giant rabbit, as Fat Albert waddles over, looking for attention.

Today, Stock Island Detention Center is home to 150 animals, including Maggie, one of three sloths, and an alpaca named Snowflake.

Then there’s Peanut, a miniature horse found wandering in the Everglades after being abandoned by her owner.

The animals arrive at the farm through a network Selander builds with animal rescues throughout the country. The network focuses on finding homes for animals like Sherman, an African spurred tortoise, acquired during a raid on a crack house in Denver, Colorado. Or Ghost, a blind and elderly horse believed to be in his late 20s who arrived at the farm in 2008 as no more than skin and bone after being abandoned in a remote county of the state and who passed away last October.

Smith had known Ghost well. The horse would be spooked and stubborn at times. Some of the other inmates had a healthy fear of Ghost, but Smith made a connection.

"I just felt comfortable around him," he said. "And seeing that everyone else was uncomfortable around him, I knew that I had to do what I had to do to make sure he was taken care of right and not neglected. Doing something good when I was in a pretty bad situation myself, it really gave me peace," he said.

Smith brushes Ghost, a blind horse that frightens easily which has taught people who handle him to be patient, gentle, and build trust.

Some of the inmates "try to be the big burly guys with the attitude," Selander said. "And that always used to move me whenever I’d see them talking to the blind horse because that’s a bond they’re forming with an animal that needs them."

Twice a month, the farm invites the public in to fawn over the animals. Selander’s outreach into the community and the reputation of the farm­ means it’s not unusual for bi­-monthly Sunday open houses to draw in as many as 200 people. Many of them are greeted by Mo the sloth, who is regularly an ornament cradled in Selander’s arms as guests arrive.

"Everyone thinks he is hugging me, but really he just thinks I’m a tree," Selander said.

Signs directing visitors to the animal farm hang along the Monroe County Detention Center’s fence.

It’s the community support that allows for the farm to continue its work. The farm is completely funded by donations. No tax dollars go to fund the project.

"If I ever need anything, the community really steps up to help," said Selander.

Along with the inmates.

"A lot of the inmates maybe have never had anybody that cared about them," she said. "And to see that the animals need them ... it means something to them. And they really take good care of them and I have some of them say, 'You’re in jail just like me.'"

Gonzalez and Smith move animals from their pens to the courtyard to graze.

Today, Smith is finishing up treatment and has found work.

He is sober. But he fondly remembers his time on the farm with Misty the Moluccan cockatoo that he snuck orange slices to. The one that followed him around the farm cooing, "I love you."

"It kept me focused," Smith said. "Spiritually, it helped me a lot. I definitely won’t forget it; that’s for sure."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

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